Louis Horst The musician who molded modern dance
Though Louis Horst was a musician and never studied dance, his influence on dance is far-reaching. He pushed Martha Graham to create her own choreographic stamp, just as he did for many of her contemporaries, like Doris Humphrey and Agnes de Mille. Horst also created some of the first literature on dance criticism and theory in his monthly journal Dance Observer.
But little in Horst’s early life would point to his future in modern dance. Growing up, he trained as a musician on piano and violin, and after leaving home at 16, he often played for casinos, brothels and silent movie theaters.
In 1915, he took a two-week job as musical director for the fledgling Denishawn Dance Company on tour in San Francisco—and ended up staying with the company for 10 years. But it was Graham’s arrival in 1916 that really kept Horst with Denishawn for so long. He was immediately drawn to her talent and vision, and they became lovers. When Graham left in 1925 to strike out on her own in New York City, he did, too. He devoted himself to championing Graham’s work.
Horst’s influence also stretched to dance criticism and the classroom. He co-founded the journal Dance Observer in 1934 to give American modern dance a voice in arts journalism. He served as chief critic and editor until his death. At Martha Hill’s invitation, he taught dance composition and a music-for-dancers class at The Bennington School of the Dance, which eventually became the American Dance Festival. In the classroom, Horst could be intimidating, bordering on cruel, but dancers considered his courses a rite of passage. Hill later hired him to teach composition at Juilliard in 1951, which he did until his death in 1964 at the age of 80. DT
Horst composed 11 pieces of music for Graham’s works. With one exception, the dance always came before the music. Horst thought of the score as the setting for the dance.
Frontier (1935) Horst structured this simple melody for piano in theme and variations. For her solo, Graham was inspired by the landscape of the West she’d seen when traveling on tour across the U.S.
Primitive Mysteries (1931) Graham wanted to imitate Native American dance, so Horst mimicked Native American music, using the flute and oboe. He wanted the score to feel like the chief’s chant at the start of a ceremonial dance.
El Penitente (1940) This was the last of 11 scores Horst created for Graham, and it was the only one composed before the dance was made. During Horst’s arrangement for piano, flute and clarinet, Graham partnered with two men, Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham.
Horst taught two dance composition courses: pre-classic forms and modern forms. He encouraged his students to apply music principles to choreography: He favored A-B-A form as the quintessential dance structure and believed principles of music harmony and counterpoint should be used to create movement. His classes were legendary for his caustic wit (he referred to Graham as “Mirthless Martha” and Agnes de Mille as “Agony Agnes”), and more than one student fled his classroom crying.
When choreographer Paul Taylor presented his first concert in 1957—titled Seven New Dances—one piece featured him standing still for four minutes and 33 seconds (the length of John Cage’s accompanying and silent score). Horst famously responded with four inches of blank space, followed by his initials, in his Dance Observer column.
Horst’s pet dachshund, Max, accompanied him nearly everywhere. After Max died, he adopted another dachshund: Spud.
The Legacy Lives On
Horst was a guide, musician, coach or composition teacher (and sometimes all four at once) to modern dance luminaries: Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Agnes de Mille, Helen Tamiris, Anna Sokolow, Pearl Lang, Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Lucinda Childs, Martha Clarke, Meredith Monk and many others. In the 1960s, when the Judson Dance Theater–era postmodernists began rejecting formality in favor of pedestrian movement, Horst’s choreographic methods became less popular. But his influence on the shape of American modern dance is unmistakable.
“Louis Horst: The musician who shaped modern dance,”
by Neil Ellis Orts, Dance Teacher, February 2010
“The Music Man of Modern Dance: Louis Horst,”
by Walter Sorell, Dance Magazine, December 1984
Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer’s World, by Janet Mansfield Soares, Duke University Press, 1992
“You call me Louis, not Mr Horst,”
by Dorothy Madden, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996
Both photos (top) courtesy of
Dance Magazine archives; photo by Nina Fonaroff, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives